The voice-based social network Clubhouse has become a trend that, like Telegram and YouTube before it, could transform the way Russians get their information. With officials still scrambling to understand the application, so far, the restrictions are mostly technical.
Calling itself “a space for authentic conversation and expression,” Clubhouse was launched less than a year ago by the U.S. software company Alpha Exploration Co. Access requires an invitation from a current user, who can create his or her own audio chat rooms and assign moderators.
As of February 22, Russia, which reportedly has up to a few hundred thousand actual users, ranked third in the world, after the U.S. and Japan, for Clubhouse downloads (784,000) since the application’s March 2020 beta launch, the tech news site Gadgets 360 reported.
The social network already has become an alternative source of information – “a more modern, independent type of radio,” commented Roman Dobrokhotov, editor-in-chief and founder of The Insider, a Russian investigative-news-and-analysis site.
At the same time, the platform has attracted “a bunch of” Russian politicians, ministers, and former members of the presidential administration who are eager to be part of the “show,” cyber-rights activist Mikhail Klimaryev noted to the traditional radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) on February 28.
In a country with limited access to unrestricted media – social or otherwise -- the appeal for many Russian users appears to be the conjunction of these two trends. Clubhouse potentially broadens access to decision-makers.
Once invited to become a member of the iPhone-only platform, users can join audio conversations and, in theory, chat directly with celebrities ranging from Facebook founder Marc Zuckerberg to the deputy CEO of Russia’s powerful Yandex Internet company, Tigran Khudaverdian.
“[I]t’s a nightmare not only for PR professionals, but for conference creators because … people come absolutely for free, and they listen, and have the chance to ask questions, and talk with these people,” observed Russian Clubhouse moderator Aleksandr Kiyatkin.
Russian moderator Anatoly Kapustin, a former volunteer for jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, started a series of popular discussion rooms after wondering aloud on Clubhouse about the identity of Herman Klimenko, a former Internet-development adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and why he matters. Klimenko himself showed up in the chat room to explain, Kapustin told The Bell, an independent Russian news site.
But such firsthand access does not necessarily make Clubhouse a straightforward platform for journalists to get the information they need.
“I think that Clubhouse is the most complicated [social-media] resource -- not only for censorship, but for holding people accountable, if you [want to] take a certain Clubhouse conversation and then go prove that that voice belongs to this very person, that he really said this,” commented Dobrokhotov.
Clubhouse’s rules forbid users to record conversations, although the application itself does so -- allegedly, to crosscheck any user complaints and to verify that the people distributing invitations to join Clubhouse are actual, confirmed users.
Some observers believe that Russia’s interventionist communications regulator Roskomnadzor will soon start probing for the best way to keep track of Clubhouse’s activities itself.
The February 15 exclusion of TV host Vladimir Solovyov from Clubhouse raised speculation about whether Roskomnadzor would use Russia’s new law against “discrimination” on social networks to fine Alpha Exploration Co. On February 17, the regulator warned Clubhouse that it was violating Russians’ rights to access and distribute information.
The 57-year-old Solovyov, who ranks as one of the most outspoken proponents of Kremlin policy, reportedly was blocked from the application by critical users after he set up a discussion room called “Why hasn’t the queer revolution taken off in Russia?”
One opposition-friendly, Russian Clubhouse community named for Bionicles – action-figure toys manufactured by the Danish company LEGO – had begun to target Solovyov, but whether they had lobbied for his exclusion is unclear.
On Telegram, Solovyov scoffed that the ban showed “[E]verything that you need to know about ‘freedom of speech values’ on this platform.”
His account was reinstated just over a week later, on February 24. No reason was given for the decision.
Clubhouse’s rules state that a user can be blocked for “abuse, bullying, or harassment,” discrimination, “hateful conduct,” or threats of violence or harm toward “any person or groups of people.” Also banned are “false information” and “intentionally disruptive activity that negatively affects the experience of other users.”
Despite these provisions, the Civic Chamber, a consultative group for the Russian government, has urged Roskomnadzor to monitor Clubhouse as closely as they do other social networks. The U.S. app has not yet registered with Roskomnadzor in accordance with the law, a Civic Chamber advisor on Internet technology laws, Artyom Kiryanov, recently underlined to the state news agency RIA Novosti.
Registering entails storing Russian users’ data on servers located in Russia; a step that Facebook and Twitter so far have refused to take.
Kiryanov also called on law enforcement to pay closer attention to the app. Russians can now buy online potentially fake invitations to join Clubhouse for between 200 to 10,000 rubles (roughly $2.70 to $135), the business-politics daily Kommersant reported.
Estimates of how many Russian Clubhouse users actually exist vary widely, though. The mobile-data-analysis company AppAnnie ranks Russia for the world’s 12th highest number of Clubhouse users ( an estimated 137,000), far behind the U.S. (2.62 million users) and Japan (1.42 million users), according to data given to the Russian news outlet RBC.
The Moscow data-monetization agency oneFactor reports still higher numbers: supposedly, 400,000 active users; 35 percent of them in Moscow, and 63 percent under the age of 35, oneFactor’s director of analysis and algorithms, Maksim Voevodsky, told RBC.
Either way, in a parliamentary election year, those numbers could prove attractive for the government.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has termed “very interesting” an invitation from international entrepreneur Elon Musk to hold a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Clubhouse.
But the Kremlin, Peskov implied on February 15, does not entirely understand what the app is. Officials still need “to verify all this” and “to understand somehow … what is being offered” before Moscow responds, he said.
Ironically, one Clubhouse conversation about a news story concerning President Putin already helped illustrate the app’s potential power.
On February 16, BBC Russia journalist Andrei Zakharov, the co-author of an investigation for the news outlet Proyekt (Project) into a share transfer at St. Petersburg’s Bank Rossia, used the app to talk with a woman alleged to be the daughter of the shares’ recipient and President Putin. The woman in question, Louiza Rozova, refused to respond to whether or not she is the Russian leader’s biological daughter.
Nonetheless, multiple media outlets picked up the conversation, which coincided with what AppAnnie reported was a 17-fold increase in Clubhouse’s Russia-based traffic between February 10 and February 17.
“Clubhouse is like Russia in the ‘90s,” moderator Kapustin commented to Current Time about this latest tech trend. “That is, now it’s all about the accumulation of capital – social capital, rather than financial.”
-With additional reporting from Meduza, RIA Novosti, and Vesti.ru